As Highly Sensitive People (HSP), we feel things deeply and our emotional landscape is diverse. We're likely to feel the intense joy and elation that comes from positive experiences, as well as the overwhelming despair that can arise when we're navigating life's challenges.
Advantages and Disadvantages?
This ability to experience such a wide variety of emotions is thought to have advantages and disadvantages for Highly Sensitive People. When HSP are in nourishing or healthy environments they are more likely to flourish, thrive and seize opportunities available to them. Research has shown that toxic environments – especially in childhood - leave HSP vulnerable to the impact of trauma and mental or emotional struggles such as depression or anxiety.
Research suggests this is a disadvantage of being Highly Sensitive; however, I believe an ability to feel into the depth of our suffering can, paradoxically, also be a gift and a catalyst for our individual and collective healing.
Does everyone experience the world as we do?
It's human nature to want to avoid mental, emotional and physical suffering; we try to 'get over' our pain as quickly as possible. We might wonder if other people struggle with the same level of emotional intensity that we do, or if they also experience the world as being too much?
The ability to feel such depth of emotion can feel like a blessing and a burden of being Highly Sensitive. This depth of connection and awareness can result in experiences of awe, deep gratitude and an appreciation for the nature of existence. It can also lead us to feel submerged by the heavyweight of grief and emotional or mental suffering. Many Highly Sensitive People will be have been impacted by significant trauma, consumed by grief or found themselves lost in the depth of a depressive episode. We tend to understand these challenging experiences as mental illness. We might pathologise them or even perceive them to be confirmation of one's vulnerability and label them as 'the disadvantages of being Highly Sensitive'. However, I believe that falling into the abyss; feeling deeply into our wounds and the collective wound of the Earth is a necessary process - an initiation of some kind - that propels us onto a significant path of healing and transformation. By navigating these periods of darkness, we can then learn to access our gifts and soul purpose.
We can understand grief, depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental, emotional or physical struggle through a spiritual lens; instead of illness, these difficult experiences are a type of crisis but also an opportunity to emerge and heal. The depth of processing and emotional receptivity of HSP can easily lead one to a spiritual crisis, but when navigated with the right resources in place, can become a spiritual emergence and be profoundly transformative for the Highly Sensitive Person.
Dark Night of the Soul
The Dark Night of the Soul is a metaphor to describe a phase of extreme depression and loneliness, sadness or loss of interest in life. We may start to question our beliefs and sense of meaning or purpose, especially in relation to the spiritual or divine. The Dark Night can involve the shedding of a particular way of being, a letting go of familiar relationships and lifestyles. This can undoubtedly bring feelings of isolation, suffering or depression; however, a new and more fulfilling reality can emerge through this type of re-birthing process.
A dark night of the soul can then be understood as a meaningful experience – a process of psychological and spiritual transformation rather than an illness or pathology. Joseph Campbell spoke about the hero's journey, which consists of four phases. We are met with a call – for something more in life. A call that often comes from a deep knowing, an inner voice or intuitive guidance that drives us to follow a particular path. In the second stage, we face obstacles and challenges that the hero is called to move beyond and trust in the journey despite not necessarily knowing the outcome. During this stage, we enter the dark night of the soul – one enters a period of doubt, profound suffering, and pain. Yet, this period is necessary for one's rebirth – the third stage – which is the call to step into the next stage and emerge through their struggle and pain. The fourth stage is the return to society, where the wisdom, knowledge, or healing that the individual has encountered is shared with others and the world.
The Wounded Healer
Many Highly Sensitive People are drawn towards a path of healing or helping others, and I have come across many people who relate strongly to the path of the wounded healer. The wounded healer experiences and overcomes significant challenges in their life and then can step into the role of healer, guide or visionary for others.
When we have directly experienced something challenging, we can eventually hold this space for others who are going through very similar experiences.
To see the gift or potential behind our trauma and wounds is not an easy task! It's also not something we can do during periods of depression or despair – nor am I suggesting we do this! We don't need to force our way through our challenges; but, I believe there is great power when we remember to trust and surrender to the ebb and flow of our emotional experience. This is where we can reclaim our gifts of sensitivity and embrace the richness and diversity of what it means to be human.
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About the Author
Jules De Vitto is a transpersonal orientated coach and educator who is experienced at helping Highly Sensitive People overcome anxiety, stress and burnout.
Jules is also Highly Sensitive and helps Highly Sensitive People step into their authentic power and align with their true purpose in life. She lived in Asia for eleven years before moving to London and integrates Eastern practices and modern-day mindfulness into her work.
She has a degree in Psychology, an MA in Education and an MSc in Transpersonal Psychology, Consciousness and Spirituality. She's a published author through Changemaker Books and John Hunt Publishers and wrote Resilience: Navigating Loss in a Time of Crisis to help people through the Covid-19 Pandemic available here.